Tech coach Chris Long seemed much more impressed with Tennessee than its own coach did. He also was happy with how his team hung tough with Tennessee until turnovers did them in during the latter part of the first half.
Tennessee was ahead 40-20 at halftime, largely due to 50 percent shooting and 19 points off of Tech turnovers. Louisiana Tech, 5-3, shot only 23.1 percent and turned over the ball 15 times in the first 20 minutes.
"Tennessee is a great team," Long said. "They're the number one team in the country for a reason. They make you pay for mistakes. I felt like in the first half – I think the score was 17-12 – I felt like we had turnovers, and they were kind of unforced. It wasn't so much the pressure. We threw the ball away at a crucial time. We went through a stretch and couldn't score. A lot of that had to do with those turnovers. I felt like early in the first half we were right there. Had we taken better care of the basketball I felt like it would be a different first half. But Tennessee, give them credit. They put a lot of pressure."
At the 8:25 mark in the first half, Tennessee led 17-12, and point guard Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood had picked up her third personal foul. Pat Summitt wants her first five on the floor to make a fast start, but neither team was putting together much offense in the first half.
"It had a lot to do with the energy," senior guard Shanna Zolman said, or in this case, the lack thereof. "I thought that we move at times pretty well, but I think that sometimes the ball didn't fall; we weren't in offensive rebounding position oftentimes as well. We started off very slow. I looked up and remembered seeing we have 17 points with eight minutes to go in the half. I was like, ‘Are you kidding?' "
But then Zolman, Hornbuckle, Anosike and Candace Parker picked up the pace, and Tennessee closed out the first half with 23 points in seven minutes.
"That had a lot to do with our defensive pressure and being able to get steals, being able to get rebounds and being able to (score) transition points, which we weren't doing early on," Zolman said. "We made a run at the very end there and started getting things going."
Tennessee had nine steals in the first half, and seven of them came from Anosike (three) and Parker (four).
Zolman led all scorers with 21 points. Parker had 18 points, along with seven rebounds. Anosike also was in double figures with 12 points and added two more steals in the second half.
"The one thing that I think you can count on Nicky every night is to bring the intensity and the passion," Summitt said. "She works hard, posts up, she runs the floor hard, she defends. You never have to coach effort. I thought she had a lot of composure, made a lot of good things happen. She guarded on the perimeter, guarded in the post. This is the way we need her to play for us, because we lack that, and we lacked leadership tonight. I thought she provided the leadership by example. Really a good game for her."
The leadership must come from the seniors – Zolman and center Tye'sha Fluker, who could once be heard loudly imploring her teammates to block out. The Lady Vols knew Tech was an excellent rebounding team – they had a nearly two-to-one margin on the boards early in the first half and led in that category 21-18 at halftime – and Tennessee too often had no weak-side rebounding.
Zolman, despite her offensive production – she was 6-11 from the floor and 4-4 from the line – knows her coach wants a complete game on both ends of the floor. So what will make Summitt happy?
"For us to do it," Zolman said. "She's really upset with myself defensively and just how we performed as a team on the defensive side of things, but these two over here (Anosike and Hornbuckle joined Zolman at the press conference) played excellent defense tonight. They got on the boards. They always get on the boards. That's something that coach is constantly trying to harp on is defense and rebounding. That's always been the catalyst for Tennessee basketball. That's what we're used to seeing; that's what the fans are used to seeing. That's something we continually need to work on."
"There were defensive breakdowns. The only two people who I thought really stepped up in that situation – Tye, of course she's a senior (and) Lex," Summitt said. "I know they were on Dom and on Lindsey for not defending. I think you have to have that. I think you have to have accountability on your team, and you have to have communication and you have to be willing to step up and deliver the message and handle the message. They're the two that were trying to communicate action."
Redshirt freshman forward Alex Fuller, who has been battling a hip injury, played eight minutes and did well defensively and added a bucket and an offensive rebound.
"I didn't want to play Alex too many minutes, but I think she's moving a lot better, and hopefully get through one more game, and she has rest," Summitt said of the upcoming Christmas break. "Because Alex will rebound. We may have to go with Alex at the three, and I'm not opposed to doing that because we're not rebounding from the three. Or you can always go with Candace at the three. But we have to rebound with three, four and five and get a guard on the boards. And I trust Alexis to do that."
That could signal either a lineup change or a significant shift in minutes with more players vying for court time. Parker has been playing at the four position while Summitt has used a three-guard lineup on the perimeter. If she's looking for rebounders, then Hornbuckle's status is solidified. Zolman's shooting should keep her on the floor. If Parker stays at the four and Fuller moves to the three – or Parker could shift to the perimeter, and Fuller would play in the paint – that could push Wiley-Gatewood to a substitute role on occasion. There's another player in the mix, too, in sophomore center Sybil Dosty, who scored eight points in 11 minutes and also snared seven rebounds
"Dosty earned some minutes because she will do one thing and that's rebound the ball," Summitt said. "I'm looking for rebounders right now and defenders. I was pleased to see her come in and play the way she played."
Wiley-Gatewood didn't start the second half – she was saddled with three fouls so Sidney Spencer started instead – and then she left the game later after feeling dizzy and having difficulty breathing. Wiley-Gatewood called timeout on the sideline in front of Tennessee's bench and then quickly sat down. She was helped to the locker room and later returned but didn't look well and didn't reenter the game.
"I think she just had trouble breathing," Summitt said. "She's got a bit of congestion."
It was a physical game that was often played at a fast pace. The battles inside for the rebounds were particularly pitched.
"It was definitely a battle," Hornbuckle said. "They're so athletic. They get up. If you don't box them out, it's a 50-50 chance that anyone can get the rebound. They play strong. The rebound's not finished until somebody brings it out. You saw that on each and every possession every time the ball came off the rim. I think both teams played with a lot of heart on the boards, but I know coach is stressing the fact that we need to up our intensity when it comes to rebounding."
Tennessee eventually won out on the boards, 40-35, but the Tech players often had no trouble slipping in among the taller Lady Vols and coming out with the ball.
"As coach tells us, ‘Come out of your circle,' " said forward Aarica Ray-Boyd, who led Tech with 15 points and also had three defensive rebounds. "We work on a drill that makes us come out of our circle to go get any ball no matter if it's at half court or on the bench. We come out of our circle, and we definitely go get the ball."
Tech forward Tamika Kursh finished with 11 rebounds and seven points. Two other Lady Techsters joined Ray-Boyd in double figures – Tasha Williams had 13, and Shan Moore added 10. They were particularly adept at getting loose on the perimeter for open jumpers. If they had hit a few more – Ray-Boyd was 5-13, Williams was 2-7 and Eboni Mangum was 3-10 (seven points), it would have been a much closer game.
"Everyday in practice we work on getting open so I think that played a big part in getting open because we practice that – pop out and get open," Ray-Boyd said.
Tennessee prevailed in the paint – 36 interior points to 24 for Tech – and every post player for the Lady Vols demonstrated both an ability to get open and to finish.
"We got to the point where we were putting a little pressure on the wings," Long said. "They were one on one in there. They made some nice entry passes. Later in the game, especially in the second half, they began to go to the block. They went to work. They made some plays in the post. We weren't going to change our defense that late in the game. I give them credit. They got it to the blocks, and that's why they shot 46 percent (for the game) against us because they got those high percentage shots."
Parker displayed a little more of her overall game. She hit the first 3-pointer of her career in the first half and made an assortment of short and mid-range jumpers. She had three assists, including a highlight reel one on a fast break in which she delivered a bounce pass behind her back to Zolman on the left side of the lane.
Zolman and Parker accounted for nearly half, 39, of Tennessee's 83 total points.
"It's great," Summitt said of the pair's offensive output. "I think having Shanna and Candace and their ability to score inside and outside, that's tough. Obviously they've given us a lot of stability offensively. That's something we didn't have a year ago from the inside. Candace has given us that. Obviously Nicky is playing better."
Anosike is still resolving two issues from last season – fouling too fast and not finishing inside – but she took a huge step forward Thursday.
"Before the game the big emphasis was energy and just coming out with a lot of energy," Anosike said. "We knew this team was athletic and liked to get up in your face. We needed to match the intensity. I just took the initiative."
That initiative will keep her on the floor for Summitt, and after the game the coach made it clear she's hanging out a help wanted sign for rebounders and defenders. Summitt seemed to believe a loss was looming for her team if they didn't change their attitude on the boards. Zolman doesn't want it to get that far.
"I definitely don't want to lose. Never," Zolman said. "First of all we didn't do it ourselves as leaders on the team, and she will look to us for that leadership. We can't talk, we can't say anything if we don't do it ourselves. The first thing is we've got to do it ourselves and bring it every single day. We practice hard. We do well in practice, we're very aggressive on the boards and then sometimes in a game we're not as aggressive. It's just being able to do it every single day. Bring it ourselves and be able to lead the team both by example and verbally."
Hornbuckle agreed that the best post-game approach was to acknowledge the win and then regroup at practice.
"Definitely. A win is a win," she said. "It wasn't our best win and definitely wasn't our best effort. We just know we've got to go back to practice tomorrow (Friday) until we come to our game time Tuesday (against Princeton). We've got to work on our one-on-one defense and just the aggressiveness on the boards. But a win is a win."
There's too much time between games for Summitt to have already decided to change her starters. But it sounded like the next few days of practice could be an audition of sorts.
"We've got some practice time before I even think about the lineup," Summitt said. "We didn't get off to a great start so we'll look at it. I'm looking for defensive players and rebounders right now.
"I think rebounding is all about desire. Instinctively Nicky has that desire. Candace has that desire. They're going to go to the boards. Sybil has that. I think Alex has that. Fluker hadn't had that; she's got to get it. And we've got to have it from the perimeter. I think Hornbuckle has got it, but we've got to have it from Sid and Dom. That's two really good-sized forwards that can come in and rebound. To me it's all about the heart, the passion, the desire. You've got to want the ball, and you've got to pursue the ball. You've got to do more than just shoot."